THE role which many of Ulster’s great and good played in the slave trade has been revealed in depth for the first time.
A number of local businessmen put in claims for the loss of their “property” as slavery was being abolished, the details of which are contained in a newly-published list compiled by University College London (UCL).
As well as English slave owners, on the list are close to 20 claimants from what is now Northern Ireland.
But by far the richest of them is Charles McGarel, a leading light of his day in Larne society.
According to the records, he owned close to 2,500 human beings.
When they were set free, he successfully claimed compensation from British taxpayers for his losses.
A businessman with holdings on demerara sugar plantations, he is such an important local figure that streets in Larne such as McGarel Gardens and McGarel Court still bear his name.
He funded the construction of Larne’s town hall and a plaque had recently been affixed in his memory by the Larne and District Historical Society, although it has been removed following a refurbishment of the building.
He also gave over land to build McGarel Cemetery, and built almshouses to accommodate the town’s poor.
Although news of his substantial slaveholdings came as a surprise to some, local historian Liam Kelly said: “It’s always been known McGarel was involved in the slave trade.
“It has always been recognised that he built the almshouses, which were houses for people who had fallen on hard times.
“I think he was putting the money he made to good use, to maybe salve his conscience. But it’s not something that’s talked about a lot in Larne.”
Asked if the extent of McGarel’s slave ownership surprised him, Mr Kelly, a 67-year-old retired health and safety manager who now helps run the www.MemoriesOfLarne.co.uk website, said: “It doesn’t. Nothing surprises me any more at my age.
“He was extremely wealthy even with the money he spent on those things [such as the town hall, almshouses and graveyard].
“The only positive thing is at least it provided somewhere for people to be buried in Larne, and Larne town hall is a great asset to the town now. But it’s certainly not right to celebrate his life from that point of view.”
McGarel did much of his business in the City of London.
His slaveholdings were in what was then known as British Guiana, on the Caribbean cost of South America.
The numbers enslaved on the estates, according to his claims for compensation submitted between 1835 and 1837, were 2,489.
The compensation he received was roughly £130,000.
Translating this into today’s cash is difficult.
But according to the National Archives’ currency calculator, this works out at roughly £5.7m.
This means each slave would be worth roughly £2,300 in today’s money.
UCL’s lengthy listing of McGarel’s business dealings goes on to say that much of the money he made was reinvested in the iron and railway industries, adding that he also “flirted with a political career” as a Conservative candidate for Worcester – but apparently found little favour with voters.
The mini-biography concludes: “He died a very wealthy man in 1876, leaving personalty of £500,000, making him in turn one of the richest men in Britain dying that year.”
But it further notes: “It is understood in Larne that his wealth derived from demerara and the sugar trade, but as is often the case the role of slavery is not visible in the short-hand histories of his wealth deployed locally.”
Larne’s deputy mayor Mark McKinty said he had not realised McGarel was a slave owner,
But since McGarel was a sugar plantation owner in the 19th Century, he added: “Two plus two makes four.”
Mr McKinty continued: “He’s been portrayed as a great benefactor to the town and a philanthropist. But that might change the perception a wee bit.
“Nonetheless I suppose it was a different time, when everyone was involved in the trade.
“And I suppose it’d be interesting to look into it, how he looked after his slaves. He could have had slaves but treated them very well.”
Asked if, in light of the revelations, the council should reconsider its plaque commemorating him or the bust on display in the town hall, the deputy mayor said: “I think it’d be too early to make that decision. We’d need to look into how he dealt with the slaves. Two-thousand-five-hundred is a large number.
“And from what I’ve heard, and what we know, he was very generous and, you know, sort of a positive character.
“I don’t think we’d make a decision in haste.”
McGarel’s two brothers John and Peter also owned slaves.
Another slave owner revealed by the records was The Honourable Hercules Robert Pakenham, brother-in-law of the Duke of Wellington, who lived at Langford Lodge, Crumlin in Co Antrim.
He was awarded compensation for the Stephen’s Blizard estate in Antigua, where 217 people were enslaved.
Other claimants were based in Belfast, Lurgan and Londonderry.
The list also includes the former commander of British military forces in Ireland, Field Marshall Sir John Michel, and even a cleric – the Rev James Peter Rhodes, from Clonmel, who claimed for slaveholdings on an estate in Jamaica.